President Clinton suffered another one of those little embarrassing moments at the kickoff to ABC’s annual affiliate meeting.
It was also a day highlighted by stations’ first look at Steven Bochco’s PG- 13-rated drama “NYPD Blue” and ABC TV Network Group chief Robert Iger’s first appearance at this gathering in that capacity.
President Clinton, who also appeared at CBS’ affiliates gathering, engaged in a satellite question-and-answer session as part of ABC News’ presentation and drew some fire afterward for failing to do his homework on broadcast issues.
Clinton, in response to a general question about his views on regulation of broadcasting, said he hadn’t prepared for that subject and therefore was unwilling to voice an opinion. “This is not an area of expertise for me,” he said.
In a brief post-Q&A analysis, ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, flanked by anchor Peter Jennings and reporter Cokie Roberts, cited the response as an example of the president’s poor advance work from staff, noting that broadcast regulation, while not on a par with Somalia or Bosnia, “is an important issue to this group.” The observation drew applause from the audience.
Also drawing applause was the much-anticipated screening of Bochco’s “NYPD Blue,” a gritty police drama that will carry a “parental discretion advised” tag and feature stronger language and more nudity than most prime time fare.
The post-screening muttering seemed generally positive, with some general managers and station owners lauding the show and saying the networks need to explore such territory (“It’ll all be ‘TGIF’-type stuff otherwise,” one owner said), though a few others expressed concern about prime time TV dealing with terrain that’s been reserved for feature films and pay cable.
The hour really didn’t push the envelope that far, featuring some bare bottoms, one slightly more explicit scene of love-making and several terms seldom if ever heard in prime time, among them “tits,””asshole” and “dickhead.” ABC exec VP of affiliates George Newi told stations that the network is eager to “hear your reactions and thoughts on the show.”
The big question, even from those who applauded the show, iswhether ABC will be able to find advertisers willing to support the program in the face of almost-inevitable complaints from self-appointed industry watchdog groups.
Iger, who headed the entertainment division before handing off in January to Ted Harbert, quipped in his opening remarks that affiliates should remember he developed the show “if you like it,” and if not, “just remember that Ted Harbert scheduled it.”
Making his first address to the spring affiliates powwow in his new capacity, Iger also sounded a warning about clearances in fringe dayparts like Saturday morning and daytime, saying preemptions cut into revenues and put further stress on the network cost structure, potentially inhibiting the web’s ability to provide high-quality programming.
“The shows themselves are our brand names,” Iger said, adding that despite the “virtual frenzy” and “sea of chaos” surrounding changes in the television business, “network television, if managed properly, will continue to dominate the industry.”
The event was somewhat notable as well for those who didn’t attend, reflecting a sort of passing of the torch at the network. Chairman Thomas Murphy wasn’t on hand, founder Leonard Goldenson couldn’t make it despite the incorporation of ceremonies relating to ABC’s 40th anniversary, Iger’s forbearer John Sias has moved on to Chronicle Broadcasting and president-CEO Daniel Burke — who has been hinting that he’ll retire when he turns 65 in February — arrives today only for the closed affiliates business session.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the desire to fortify network-affiliate ties, outgoing affiliate board chairman Peter Desnoes addressed the group, saying the relationship “can and will be more interactive” than it has been in the past, which he described as “creative non-engagement.” Desnoes added that he was encouraged about the future of broadcasting in general and ABC in particular.
“Nightline,” the subject of a major push for more “live” clearances (that is, directly out of local news) at last year’s convention, has increased that level from 61% to 70%, according to ABC News chief Roone Arledge, who said the show is “poised to take the lead in late night and hold it for years to come” with Jay Leno and David Letterman divvying up the talk show audience.
ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson, sounding an old refrain, told affiliates that the network will go after the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta but won’t sign on the dotted line “if it means makinga bad financial deal.” Negotiations between the networks and Olympic organizers will take place the week of July 26.
Swanson also touted Major League Baseball’s return to the web under ABC and NBC’s joint deal but told affils that they won’t receive compensation on the baseball package, which will be heavily regionalized to increase the value of their local ad avails.
ABC said it will do a second “In a New Light” prime time concert special promoting AIDS awareness on Sept. 4, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, despite a rather tepid 4.6 rating, 10 share for last July’s debut special.
In late night, the web will add “In Concert: Country” specials on Saturday nights next summer as a companion to Friday-night show “ABC in Concert.” ABC will also offer another Independence Day concert spec, to air July 3, and a Halloween-themed music spec for October.
In addition to “NYPD Blue,” pilots screened included “Phenom,””Thea” and “Boy Meets World,” which probably received the most favorable reaction.